Have you ever had that feeling late at night when suddenly you have a massive craving for sugar?
It’s as if that chocolate bar you grabbed at the deli, or those random jelly beans you have in the kitchen completely take over your thoughts. No matter how much you try to shake the image of the food you are craving out of your mind, the image grows larger and more vivid. Within minutes, your stomach feels empty even though you just ate dinner an hour ago.
You begin to reason with yourself, “Alright, I’ll just have one bite to get it off my mind”. One bite invariably leads to more bites, until you slam down a day’s worth of sugar right before bed.
If this sounds eerily familiar to what you experience, you are not alone. In fact, everyone experiences food cravings at one time, or another, with some feeling it more frequently and more intensely than others.
The science behind overeating, hunger, and cravings is vast and can easily fill a book. This short article will briefly explore some of the mechanisms of hunger and cravings, and give you 7 actionable tips you can use to help reduce, or possibly even stop the food cravings you experience.
Physiological vs. Psychological Food Cravings
As living and breathing organisms, humans need calories and nutrients to function and stay alive. So how do you figure out how many calories and nutrients your body needs?
The short answer is you shouldn’t have to grab a calculator to figure it out. Our bodies are finely tuned machines that have evolved over millions of years to regulate our hunger. We eat when we need the calories, and stop eating when we are full – or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work.
Various theories exist as to why and how our built in hunger regulation gets seriously out of whack when presented with a plate of hot fudge brownies. The second we start eating more calories and nutrients than our body needs for survival, we start shifting from physiological eating to psychological eating, from feeling hungry because our bodies need calories and nutrients to “thinking” we are hungry because the food we are eating is so tasty we just can’t control ourselves.
Research has proven that food can be just as addicting as heavy recreational drugs.1 In fact, the same part of the brain that is activated by these drugs is activated by the sight, smell, and taste of those delectable foods you crave. To make matters even more challenging, food marketing companies exploit our addiction by combining fats and sugar2 in ways that purposely over-stimulate our brains.
The following 7 tips can help you stop your cravings that are deeply rooted in your psychology and physiology:
1. Take Notes
Making your subconscious habits conscious to identify in what situations you start to have cravings could be the most important step you take. Writing down the situations when you feel the cravings, or simply doing this as part of your food journal can help stop the food cravings from happening, or directly allow you to address them. The sight or smell of the food, location, time of day, your emotional state (such as if you are stressed), or lack of sleep are just some of the situations that can spark a food craving.
Once you identify the situations where you crave foods, anticipate these situations like an elite athlete before a competition. For example, you may say to yourself, “If I smell fresh chocolate chip muffins on my way to work, I’ll keep walking”. This rehearsal process conditions the mind to make the body react favorably before you can enter into a deep inner monologue, which invariably doesn’t work out well. The cravings process works in a linear, step-by-step fashion with (1) a cue, (2) activation, (3) arousal, and (4) release. Rehearsing stops the food cravings at the cue step before going deeper into the process.
3. Think Negative
Pair unhealthy foods and those foods you crave with a stream of unappealing images. It’s the exact opposite of what advertising agencies do. For example, next time you have a craving for coke, picture in your mind a large bag of sugar. Then imagine opening up the bag and scooping 10 teaspoons worth of sugar into your mouth. That’s how much sugar is in a can of coke, because there is 1 teaspoon per 4 grams of sugar, and a can of coke has 39 grams of sugar.
4. Chew Gum
Cravings can rear their ugly head when you are experiencing a stressful situation, or even lack of sleep. Grabbing a piece of gum can help stave off that craving for pastries, chocolate, or whatever the vice. The thought of taking out the gum, then putting the gum back in after snacking is not that appealing for most people.
5. Drink Water
Water is not only very important for maximal fat loss and improved health, but it can also help prevent cravings. Oftentimes, our bodies have trouble differentiating between dehydration and hunger. Your body can trick you into thinking you will be satisfied with some more food, when all you really need is a tall glass of water. When you feel a craving, drink a glass of water and wait a few minutes. The cravings may subside.
6. Wear Form-Fitting Clothes
Wear clothes that are fitted to your silhouette and that flatter your figure. When you wear clothes that make you look good and feel good, you’re more likely to be active and make smart food choices. This can remind you of your fitness goals and also help motivate you to avoid unhealthy cravings. Take pride in the body you have today, as you continue to work towards your longer-term weight goals.
7. Purge Your Cupboards
While this tip is listed as #7, it could be #1, or #2 on the list. Purge your house or apartment, your desk at work, and any other place that you may have foods devoid of nutritional value. Empty calories belong in the garbage, not in your stomach! The power of “out of sight, out of mind” cannot be underestimated. There’s no reason to create any more cues, because our minds are getting assaulted with savory images of food all day long.
Some More Tips to Stop Cravings
Late night snacking is mainly something that’s habitual, so brushing your teeth after dinner is a tactic that can help. Many times when we eat late at night, it’s by force of habit, not because we are really hungry. Another tactic is to avoid the kitchen after a certain time at night, say 8pm. Many of us go in the kitchen like mindless zombies looking for stuff to munch on, so this “no kitchen re-entry” rule can be very helpful. Brushing your teeth and making this commitment can help prevent you from digging into that stash of oreo cookies right before bed (but hopefully you’ve already thrown out that stash of oreos). Finally, ending your day with some herbal tea can do the trick.
This article is just scratching the surface of complex topics like hunger, overeating, and cravings, but I hope it was a helpful introduction for you. Try out some of these actionable tips to help you stop food cravings, and let me know how it goes!
- Volkow ND, Wang GJ, Fowler JS, Tomasi D, Baler R. Food and drug reward: overlapping circuits in human obesity and addiction . Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2012;11:1-24. ↩
- Naleid A, Grimm J, Kessler D, Sipols A, Aliakbari S, Bennett J, Wells J, Figlewicz D. DECONSTRUCTING THE VANILLA MILKSHAKE: THE DOMINANT EFFECT OF SUCROSE ON SELF-ADMINISTRATION OF NUTRIENT-FLAVOR MIXTURES. Appetite. 2008 January; 50(1): 128–138. ↩